More Lumps for HD Radio

2011 has not started out well for advocates of HD Radio. Last week, Microsoft announced it would discontinue production of the Zune portable media player – one of only two portable devices that had built-in HD reception capability. Earlier in the year, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, HD Radio’s presence was pretty underwhelming. Not good indicators for increasing uptake by listeners.
In addition, the political campaign to defund federal support of public broadcasting has HD squarely in its sights. Over the last decade or so, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has invested more than $50 million in HD Radio, through infrastructure “upgrade” subsidies to CPB-funded stations and support of National Public Radio’s in-house research division, NPR Labs.
Unbeknownst to many, NPR has been the key innovator when it comes to HD technology. It developed (in full or in part) such features as multicasting, conditional access, “personalized radio,” and revised FM-HD power levels for regulatory purposes. The majority of funding for NPR Labs comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This month also saw a radio merger: Cumulus Media announced its purchase of Citadel Broadcasting, creating the second largest radio conglomerate in the country (behind Clear Channel). Citadel and iBiquity had an ongoing program whereby broadcasters could pay for their stations’ “upgrade” to HD through the bartering of advertising inventory.
The deal was unclear about just how much Citadel was prepared to invest in HD station upgrades and how iBiquity would actually get paid. It’s similarly unclear whether Cumulus will continue the program.
Finally, overall broadcaster sentiment is worse than lukewarm about the prospects of HD Radio. At the annual Country Radio Seminar, held earlier this month, the technology was openly criticized. Marc Chase, a former executive at Clear Channel and the Tribune Company, told the gathering that the industry’s poured “billions” of dollars into HD, with little to show for the investment. Broadcaster discontent has publicly intensified over the last year.
All of these developments further call into question just how it is that iBiquity Digital Corporation, HD’s proprietor, remains in business, and whether or not the technology has a viable future.